Imaginary travel was been a favorite tactic of classical music composers through the 19th and 20th centuries. Composers from northern regions depict the warm south; city-dwellers travel to the countryside; Europeans represent the farther regions of the world, especially Asia, but sometimes just Eastern Europe.
Musical travel also seems to be the unofficial theme of the current Madison Symphony Orchestra program, with three of its four pieces inviting listeners to imagine they are somewhere other than the upper Midwest as the cold, grey days of fall descend upon us.
Elgar’s In the South, this concert’s overture, grew out of the English composer’s recuperative trip to Italy. In a style that we might now think of as cinematic (though its composition precedes sound film), this music travels across geography and, in certain spots, time, as it imagines ancient Roman battles. It was a great opener for a symphony that loves its dramatic sweeps.
Henning Kraggerud’s interpretation of Max Bruch’s lovely Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra was gorgeous. (Here was the program’s one non-programmatic composition.) Comprised of lyrical themes in the first two movements and a more vigorous, reaching energy in the last, the Bruch is musically rich but rarely showy.
Kraggerud seemed deeply at ease with the material, resulting in a generous performance. Visibly relaxed and often smiling, he played with mastery, flexibility, and a warm, liquid tone.
The MSO sometimes struggles to keep up with the vagaries of a soloist’s interpretation, but in this case the rapport between soloist, conductor, and ensemble was strong. The relationship between orchestra and ensemble shifts markedly in each movement — sometimes they are tightly bound up with one another’s material, sometimes they are split into distinct roles of solo and accompaniment — and in this performance they played beautifully off of and with one another. I was especially impressed by the organic use of rubato (small flexes in tempo), which is hard to manage in a large ensemble.
Kraggerud was both performer and composer for the third piece of the concert, a series of three excerpts from his Equinox suite. In its fullest version, the piece alternates short spoken and musical episodes, together reflecting an imagined journal to 24 different cities in 24 different time zones. This performance excerpted three “postludes”: mental visits to Prague, Hangzhou, and New Orleans.
Kraggerud’s performance was lovely, of course, though the conceit of musical tourism, in which each episode borrows musical characteristics of each location, makes for a less cohesive overall experience. Of the three episodes chosen for this concert, the one set in Prague felt most convincing, perhaps because it was closest to conventional classical music in style.
Music written about experiences of nature takes so many forms: representations of awe in the face of natural grandeur and the comparative smallness of the human observer; the replication of natural sounds—birds, water, thunder; the naturalization of country and peasant musical traditions; etc.
To some extent Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (the Pastorale) does all three of these. But it also expresses the sheer sense of joy and freedom that comes from inhabiting a natural environment. Beethoven wrote that “No one can love the country as much as I do,” and this symphony reflects that through a dual sense of delight and relief.
The MSO loves to chew on big, lush, dramatic material like Holst’s The Planets, which they performed last month. They struggle more when the material resists such over-the-top expression, as is true of the Pastorale (and is also true with some older material, like Haydn symphonies). When material is more delicate, it can be harder to find and sustain energy and focus. In the first three movements the performance sometimes seemed less gracious than it might have been, but when the thunder rolled in for the fourth, they knew just what to do.
Despite that interpretive challenge, Beethoven’s Sixth is a symphony that celebrates its principal wind performers, and the MSO chairs deserve accolades for their light, lively performances.
It is perhaps ironic to do all of this musical traveling just as we enter the season of hunkering down against the cold, but perhaps that’s when we need it the most.